In Hindsight: The Relationship between the Security Council and the General Assembly
In June, the General Assembly elected five new members to serve two-year terms on the Security Council. This event highlights the interactions between these political organs of the UN system, which also include the election of the UN Secretary-General by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Council, and the simultaneous voting of both organs for members of the International Court of Justice, among other forms of engagement. It seems useful, in the wake of the elections to the Council, to consider how the relationship between the Council and the General Assembly can be strengthened.
Improving the quality of the interactions between these two organs would provide the Council with additional information and insights to inform its work. In turn, when the member states in the General Assembly feel that they have been consulted and that their views are heard on matters of international peace and security that affect them, the transparency, accountability and legitimacy of the Council are enhanced at a time when the Council is perceived to be struggling to discharge its responsibilities on a number of issues.
Building on existing practices for a stronger Council/General Assembly relationship could include:
- addressing the disconnect between the Council’s mandating of peacekeeping operations and the General Assembly Fifth Committee’s budgeting procedures;
- improving the process by which the Council’s annual report is submitted to the General Assembly and considered by the wider membership;
- convening more Council open debates on country-specific situations;
- promoting enhanced interaction between the presidents of the General Assembly and the Council; and
- holding more analytical and interactive monthly Council wrap-up sessions with the wider membership.
An unresolved issue in the relationship between the General Assembly and the Council is how to address the disconnect between the mandating process for peacekeeping missions in the Council and the budgeting process in the General Assembly Fifth Committee. At times, some Council members have acquiesced to language in Council negotiations regarding human rights or gender matters, while later advocating in the Fifth Committee to defund some of the positions needed to carry out these functions. The review process of peacekeeping budgets by the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions, which holds hearings and makes recommendations to the Fifth Committee, and by the Committee itself, can border on a review of the mandate of a particular mission. Better planning—including the possibility of informal discussions among Council members and key financial contributors, who overlap significantly—could help create a more coherent mandating and funding process, which would save countless hours of negotiations for diplomats and help peacekeeping missions more effectively to translate Council mandates into action on the ground. (For more on the mandating process for UN peace operations, please see our February 2019 research report, Is Christmas Really Over? Improving the Mandating of Peace Operations.)
Additional thought could also be given to the process by which the annual report is submitted by the Council and considered by the General Assembly. Under the UN Charter, the Security Council’s only clear obligation to the UN General Assembly is to submit an annual report for its consideration, as set out in Article 24 (3). The longstanding complaint that the report is not particularly analytical still holds true. The report is supposed to be “adopted by the Council in time for consideration by the General Assembly in the spring”, under the most recent Note 507 (S/2017/507), but by late June 2019, the Council had yet to adopt the 2018 annual report. The need for more timely submission of the annual report was underscored during the open debate on working methods on 6 June by Argentina, Costa Rica, India, Singapore, Slovenia and Switzerland (S/PV.8539). Submitting the annual report to the General Assembly earlier gives the wider membership more time to prepare for the annual debate, which is their primary vehicle to underscore their views and expectations of the Council. In this regard, the participation of the Secretary-General in the General Assembly’s annual debate might invigorate it, while also enhancing the report’s profile.
The Council often holds open thematic debates—most recently on working methods, on 6 June—but rarely holds such debates on country-specific situations. It is over seven years since the Council’s last country-specific open debates, which were on Somalia: in March 2011 at the initiative of China, and in March 2012 at that of the UK. In the context of strengthening the Council’s relationship with and accountability to the wider UN membership, scheduling open debates in a strategic way would allow the wider membership to express views on pressing country-specific situations, which constitute the lion’s share of the Council’s work, and perhaps result in the emergence of new options for addressing long-term conflicts.
More regular meetings between the monthly president of the Council and the president of the General Assembly would present an opportunity for the two presidents to share information on matters of common concern to the two organs. While there have been calls by the General Assembly for greater interaction between the two presidents, this has not become routine. At particular times, for example during the Secretary-General selection process, the two presidents met regularly to discuss the steps being taken in the selection process.
Finally, the Council could review its use of monthly wrap-up sessions with the wider membership. These sessions are an opportunity for the wider membership to assess the Council’s work during the month, to discuss lessons learnt, and to generate ideas for improving working methods. Formal wrap-up sessions, which first emerged in the Council’s practice in 2001, have not become a consistent feature on the Council’s programme of work. Informal sessions are held more regularly and could be more analytical and interactive. With better execution, these sessions, whether formal or informal, could serve as a useful vehicle for the Council to obtain feedback on its performance over the month, as well as address the UN membership’s desire for greater transparency and accountability of the Council.
(Some of these options for strengthening the relationship between the General Assembly and the Security Council were outlined by Security Council Report Executive Director Karin Landgren during the Council’s 6 June open debate on working methods.)